Smells like Teen Spirit…

Shahana Siddiqui

Youth Lives on Hope, Old Age on Memories

Monir, a post-graduate student, is one of the most hard-working researchers I have personally ever come across. He keeps me on track, follows up accordingly, and is great at taking initiatives. All he wants in return is mentorship and encouragement.

Maruf is a talented young writer for a television channel. He just brought out his sixth book. We have become acquaintances through common friends. At a drop of a hat, he picks up phone calls or responds to my emails when I am inquiring into media or script-related issues. He is always happy to help.

Mahrin came back to Bangladesh after finishing her studies in the US. Contrary to the popular belief, not every student who goes abroad to study is from a wealthy or highly connected family. She was completely at a loss about what to do for work, or how to build a career back home. With a little bit of guidance, she is now working for a highly reputed international agency in a position she is really enjoying.

These three different people are of completely different socio-economic and educational backgrounds and completely different worlds. They have different dreams and aspirations for themselves. But they have two things in common: (a.) a real desire to do something interesting, worthwhile; and (b.) they received no real guidance from their elders. These are three stories out of the innumerable emails and phone calls from young talented people with no sense of direction that my friends and I counsel on a monthly basis. Either we are pulling strings to find them jobs, we are guiding them to make the right decisions, helping to promote their work, or just hanging out with them because sometimes just to talk freely with a big brother/sister is more than enough.

Welcome to the frustrated, under-utilised, undermined, over-played and bankable youth of Bangladesh. About a quarter of the population is adolescent, of the age bracket 10-19, while another third is considered to be 'young people', ranging within the age group of 10-24. This population is unique because they fall under both categories of dependents and income-generators. While it costs a lot to educate and train the young, they are also the future workforce, the economy jump-starters. While they may not be holding positions of power, they are the largest group of voters, who will decide the fate of political parties by ballot boxes.

The question is therefore, how to tap into this energy, this possibility? Especially in a reverse-ageist society where the greater the number of birthday candles, the greater the voice and importance. This is a society where grey hair trumps qualifications, where outdated experience beats innovations.

In this context, how does one give the reins to the young, the restless and the frustrated?

The Blame Game
Recently, there has been an increase in discussions on youth and how to utilise this large segment of the population to bring about change in politics and society. The continuing Arab Spring, in particular, has made Bangladeshi politicians and policymakers either very paranoid of youth movements or highly delusional in thinking they can lead the youth to some kind of a massive change. So in this context, there are several talks on how to 'motivate the youth' and/or 'tap into their potential'. There is also the larger question -- do the young care?

These questions and concerns are heavily loaded, indicating that there is something 'wrong' with the youth group; or that they are somehow remaining idle; or that they do not care about their surroundings. And the trump card is always that we did not have to 'struggle' for the country that was given to us; we did not see a war and hence we lack passion, idealism and vision.

What elders tend to leave out from their brush stroke comments and analysis of the new generation is that: We were not raised in a vacuum. We are not the only ones to blame for the state of disenchantment.

While the last generation gave us a country, they failed to build a state. While the last generation had a dream, they failed to fix the nightmares of reality.

Re-iterating what many have said before, the state and the future of a nation comes down to the formal education and informal learning from which children grow into young adults. The national education system does not teach children to be analytical. From the very beginning of a child's education, he/she is made to memorise and regurgitate whatever has been given to them. There is no imagination; there is no space for individuality. Non-formal schools have been successful with their 'joyful' learning programmes but these children graduate into national high schools, forcing them to go back to the parrot-training process, all the way up into the tertiary level.

Private universities may have better course options and a little more space for creativity but in the end, both private and public universities have produced armies of clerks and managers. There is very little mentoring and guidance from teachers, professors, career counsellors (the few there are!), senior colleagues and acquaintances. Students choosing 'alternative' career paths to the 'traditional' ones in medicine, engineering, law, banking, management, in either private or public sectors, are seldom encouraged or have the avenue to pursue their dreams. Even these 'traditional' positions are limited, with each year, more and more students graduating with little job/career prospects. Those who are in a position to leave the country leave at the drop of a hat. Those who stay back, live through constant battles of daily life in Bangladesh, making them dream a little less and grow up too fast.

The young ones, who want to do something on their own and not join public or private service, face obstacles at every step in setting up a company and finding seed capital for their business ideas. While the world is creating easier access for new entrepreneurs and risk takers, draconian business laws make it nearly impossible for start-ups without chacha-mama connections or 'fast track' financing. Friends who have started their own innovative businesses have common stories of bribes paid, dubious favours fulfilled and threats from political mastaans. It is as if private companies are allowed to function only for state and political cadres to make illegal profits out of them. Sustainability of small businesses therefore is always at stake. And these are the stories and realities of young entrepreneurs with the strong chacha-mama connections.

Class and Leadership: Divide and Conquer
On top of choosing a good career, making money, fulfilling social expectations, we are expected to join politics and change the nation, and then the world!

A common question asked at every forum and dinner table: “why are the educated youth not joining politics or the civil service?”

Both of these public services require individuals with managerial and especially leadership skills. While born leaders are few, managers can be produced by the dozens through rigorous training. Yet we hardly see the educated youth in either the service or political arena, especially those with an understanding of the global positions of local people.

The civil servants themselves do not encourage their children to join the service, because other than a few good men, they know of the corruption, complete lack of fraternity and the politicisation of bureaucracy they practice and endorse. The 'speed money' they get to move files from one desk to another goes into the foreign or national private education for their children who will be pushed into non-civil service careers.

The uneducated politicians will set up local businesses through their sons' flourishing careers as local thugs while the educated politicians will set up large multi-corporation through their positions of power, securing constituency seats which will be part of their children's inheritance.

But this does not explain why the rest of the educated youth do not go into politics.

The answer is one simple word, but the explanation is complex class. In a fiercely classist society, we talk about these social issues of disenchantment of the youth, the continuation of poverty, the failure to reach certain development targets without once mentioning the 'c' word. Class divides us in Bangladesh almost as definitively as caste does in India. We are divided along the lines of rural/urban, middle/upper, new/old money, rich/poor, educated/illiterate, etc. Those of us who have the luxury to think about the state of politics are too far removed from the majority we are dreaming to lead. The youth of the urban areas have almost nothing in common with those in the mofosshol or in the gram Bangla. Truth is, we the youth, ourselves have very limited understanding of our different realities and challenges. As I feel that the uneducated, uncouth MP screaming at Jatiyo Sangad is not my representative, the youth of a village has the right to not consider the likes of me as his/her representative.

While leaders and administrators of the yester years were of a certain pedigree, they were able to cut across the class divisions and understand the pulse of the people. It is that same group of leaders and administrators, who could not teach the next generation on how to communicate and listen to the different people with different realities.

My question back to those who ask about our political commitment is this: how does one come to power if not through the bi-partisan political system which infests corruption? Are we to change the system of corruption, come to positions of power or do both?

Because if it is corruption you want us to curb, then coming into the current state of politics will only manifest the corrupt cycle. If it is to break the current bi-partisan political set-up, please do not expect us to join the political system for one can never break the system by being a part of that system.

Also, at the end of the day, while we love our nation and our people, we also love our families and friends and have a right to a life that is not dedicated to cleaning the mess of the last generation.

Anthem for the Young
At this point in the article I should write something a little inspiring and a little hopeful. But I feel I do not need to for the hope and inspirations are already in the young people themselves. Despite the mammoth national challenges, the ageist culture, and the anti-youth policies and approaches, it is the youth of the nation who are keeping the country going. We are the ones, through our blog-posts and Facebook activism, our infusion of music and traditional culture with global flavour, our pursuits in entrepreneurship, our courage to climb mountains and write books, our desire to be successful in both career and in family are all day-to-day inspirations that we draw from each other, fuelling our want to keep pushing and keep driving.

Older generations may not know how to listen to us and our wants, desires, and fears so make the platform for you to be heard yourself. They may have left us a nation divided, but we can try and find common grounds from those places of differences. They may have set up the strong partisan politics, but that certainly does not stop us from uniting on national issues. The youth will lead the revolution they always have, they always will it is only a matter of time and a test of endurance.

Shahana Siddiqui is a development practitioner